Hare Krishnas with shaved heads and saffron robes still preach "God consciousness" on the streets and in temples. But in private talks and on public Web sites, many accuse their fellow devotees of the most godless of crimes. After surviving scandals involving drug and weapons charges against some leaders, the movement is in crisis again. This time the issue is child abuse.
For at least a decade, current and ex-devotees claim, leaders of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, knowingly permitted suspected sex offenders to work among 2,000 children in its boarding schools. Now a law firm that has won millions from the Catholic Church is taking their case.
All of this could threaten the Hare Krishnas, the Eastern spiritual community that flowered in 1960s America only to wither in the '80s, a reminder of a lost ideal.
When the charges surfaced last fall, leaders pledged to atone. They were lauded for extraordinary openness when they acknowledged sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the schools.
Hare Krishna leaders announced in May that they would pledge $250,000 a year to investigate past child abuse and aid survivors. The group's Office of Child Protection compiled the names of 200 people who allegedly inflicted abuse in the 1970s and '80s.
So far the office reports it has finished investigating 30 cases. The organization says the investigators' pace is appropriately deliberate, but it has some former students questioning how serious movement leaders are.
"It's spin control," says Nirmal Hickey, 28, a boarding school veteran whose father was the Hare Krishna minister of education. "It's totally phony."
After years of silence, former students are lashing out at the movement. While some, like Hickey, have left completely, more live on the fringes. They chant in Hare Krishna temples, sometimes side by side with people they accuse of abuse.
Dallas attorney Windle Turley is building a case on those survivors' behalf. "We just made a decision to plunge forward on a very large scale," he says, refusing to provide details of a planned lawsuit. In 1997, Turley won a $120-million judgment in a sex abuse case against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas and agreed to a $30-million settlement.
How movement officials respond will likely determine whether they hold onto their second generation, whether they become a model for religious groups or a warning.
"We have nothing to lose," says ex-student Arjuna, who like many Hare Krishnas adopted a single Hindu name. "They have us to lose."
It was the height of the '60s when the Indian guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought his distinctive form of devotional Hinduism to the United States. Soon thousands of Westerners were wearing saris and pajama-like dhotis, living in Hare Krishna temple compounds and chanting the mantra they believed would lead to a greater awareness of God known as Krishna.
George Harrison of the Beatles turned the chant into a pop mantra--but this wasn't rock 'n' roll.
Prabhupada taught that celibacy was a means to achieve the highest spiritual state, and even married couples were not to engage in sex more than once a month. Children, he said, should be sent to boarding schools at age 5 so they could learn to be pure devotees, liberated from familial "ropes of affection." Parents were then freed to sell devotional books and do other jobs.
"I sent my son away so I would be acceptable in the movement," says one mother, Nikunjavasini. "I thought he would have a more simple life in a more pure environment. I wanted so badly to believe in purity."
By the end of the 1970s, 11 schools, known as gurukulas or houses of the guru, were operating in North America with several more around the world.
Krsna Avitara, still boyish and lanky at 32, remembers seeing the movement's promotional films of children running through fields in Vrindavan, India, home of a Hare Krishna boys' boarding school. His parents, a pharmacist and a real estate broker in Miami, had joined the movement when he was 7. He grew up surrounded by pictures of his namesake, Krishna, a puckish, blue-skinned deity who frolicked with the cowherds in his Vrindavan paradise.
"I thought that we were going to do the same," Krsna Avitara says.
But there were no cowherds to greet the American boys with shaved heads and topknots when they arrived in Vrindavan in 1980. Home was a square concrete building with stone floors. One hundred boys ages 5 to 18 slept on mats and picked worms from their meals.
The day began at 3 a.m. with a march to the showers, followed by chanting in the temple.
"Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna. Hare Hare."
The gurukulis, as the students were known, attended classes in Hindi, Sanskrit, Hindu scripture, English and history, often taught by young, untrained teachers who lived with them. Most were the followers deemed least likely to succeed at proselytizing and fund-raising, says E. Burke Rochford, Jr., a sociology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, who has studied the Hare Krishnas for two decades and was asked by the organization to look into the problem.
Many instructors lashed out at their charges, he and former students say. A week after he arrived, Krsna Avitara, then 12, says he was grabbed, hit and kicked by a teacher.
"We all had the same prayer," he says: "'Krishna, get me the hell out of here."'
Some teachers were different, the ones who'd sneak out and buy them lemonade or care for boys with malaria. Festivals were the highlights. The newly outfitted students were paraded like priests before adoring crowds of Indians.
But school offered few respites. Some children dreaded going to sleep, anticipating teachers' sexual advances. Referring to one teacher, Krsna Avitara says: "A lot of my friends slept with him. We thought that this was what love was about."
Former devotee Ben Bressack, 28, says that beginning at age 10 he was singled out by an 18-year-old teacher's assistant in Vrindavan. "I was his girlfriend or boyfriend for years," he says. "It was accepted. I didn't know any different."
Raghunatha, 34, says he endured beatings during his first years at the schools, then at 15 was chosen to become a teacher's assistant. "I beat the hell out of Krsna Avitara," says Raghunatha, who has since apologized.
Girls also report emotional and physical abuse.
Rukmini, a student at the Los Angeles gurukula, describes a teacher attacking her with a metal pole. Her best friend, Jahnavi, says she was made to lick up a drink she'd spilled on the ground. More painful was being forced to sleep naked in a bathtub because she had wet her bed.
"My security, love, peace of mind were taken away from me," she says.
Sociologist Rochford says it is impossible to know how many of the approximately 2,000 boarding school students were abused. Even the most loyal Hare Krishnas tend to agree with his assessment that much of the harm occurred because the movement that prized celibacy did not value its children.
"Marriage and family life came to represent a sign of spiritual weakness," Rochford wrote in an article commissioned by an official publication of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Most parents, he wrote, "accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children," though a Hare Krishna spokesman, Anuttama, says protecting children was a basic value.
Few students recall telling their parents about the abuse. Letters were censored, family visits rare. Bressack, for one, says he barely knew his mother.
"She wasn't anyone special to me," he says.
Only recently did she learn of the abuse. "Every day she apologizes," says Bressack's brother, Arjuna.
So does Nikunjavasini, mother of another former student: "Sending my son away was the biggest mistake of my life."
Hare Krishnas debate how much their leaders knew about child abuse and when.
In 1986, former devotee Kenneth Capoferri was convicted of seven counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with young children at a child care center run by the Hare Krishnas in Los Angeles.
In 1987, Frederick DeFrancisco, a teacher's assistant at the Hare Krishna farm in New Vrindaban, W.Va., was convicted of sex offenses against a child.
Anuttama, the spokesman for the Hare Krishnas, says that the GBC, or governing commission of top leaders, did not understand the depth of the problem.
But longtime Hare Krishna Nara Narayan disagrees: "The GBC was aware of the gurukula abuses from the very beginning. . . . I personally witnessed severe child abuse by the teachers and registered complaints to no avail."
Even a GBC member, Hare Vilas, says his colleagues were aware of the problem since the late 1980s and failed to act. "The GBC has always been lackadaisical about going after perpetrators," he says.
Former devotee Peter Chatterton, a father who once headed the international association of ISKCON temple presidents, says his family felt the repercussions.
Chatterton's teenage sons hadn't said much when they returned home to Vancouver, B.C., after graduating from the Vrindavan school in the mid-1980s. Their story only emerged after Chatterton's daughter married a former Vrindavan teacher, Steven Kapitany. Six months into the marriage, a 12-year-old boy said Kapitany had molested him in Vancouver. Chatterton's son then divulged that Kapitany had abused him in Vrindavan.
Kapitany was eventually found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in jail in Vancouver.
At the same time, three of Chatterton's children told him that another Hare Krishna man had abused them. Chatterton asked Kalankatha, then temple president, to ban the man from the premises, but he refused.
"I would have moved heaven and earth if I'd had a shred of proof," Kalankatha says.
Two years later, Hare Vilas, the regional director, asked the man to leave. But by then Chatterton had left the movement.
"I took all my faith and dumped it," he says.
Hare Krishnas left the movement en masse during the 1980s, many sensing a growing disconnect between the group's espoused values and its gurus' behavior.
In one case, a guru named Swami Bhaktipada was accused by prosecutors of ordering the murders of two members in the 1980s. In a plea bargain in 1996, he pleaded guilty to racketeering.
After a financial collapse, the movement closed all but a handful of its boarding schools worldwide.
As disillusioned students left, their Hare Krishna parents often rejected them as failures, says Laxmimoni, now head of the Hare Krishnas' last U.S.-based boarding school, in Alachua, a rural town in north central Florida and home to the largest American Hare Krishna community.
But within a few years, students began coming back. Some say they returned because they had few job skills and little understanding of life outside. Others missed the intensity of the spiritual life.
In Alachua, hundreds of members practice the religion to varying degrees. Nationwide, about 100,000 worshipers attend Sunday services.
"I'm not really religious," says Krsna Avitara, sitting in his sparsely furnished apartment.
Still, images of Krishna flash on his computer screen, and an altar to the deity sits above his stereo. Each Sunday he, his 18-year-old live-in girlfriend, Premanjana, and his old friend Arjuna go to the temple to chant and dance with abandon.
"It's intoxicating," Premanjana says.
Arjuna, 24, believes many early Hare Krishnas were lost hippies who misunderstood Prabhupada's teachings. His own father was a potato farmer in a nudist commune when Prabhupada visited. But religious truth, he maintains, transcends its adherents.
"Krishna is another name for God, and I have true love for God," he says. "All the [Catholic] fathers accused of molestation didn't change Jesus Christ's teachings."
The first public airing of child abuse came in May 1996 when 10 former boarding school students addressed Hare Krishna leaders who had gathered in Alachua.
"I've never seen 100 grown men cry before," says Jahnavi, who now heads Children of Krishna, an organization formed around the same time to help abuse survivors like herself.
The response looked promising. Hare Krishna leaders pledged $105,000 from their personal funds to the ex-students. During the next three years, Children of Krishna would give $85,000 in grants for counseling, education, and seed money for businesses. A year later the community formed the ISKCON Child Protection Task Force.
Krsna Avitara, who earned an economics degree from the University of Florida, was so encouraged that he volunteered to teach at the boys' boarding school in Alachua. But it wasn't long before new doubts arose.
Half the ISKCON leaders did not come through with their personal pledges, spokesman Anuttama acknowledged. And temple leaders' plans to raise funds to build a multimillion-dollar temple in Mayapur, India, angered devotees who thought the money should go to ex-students.
So far the Office of Child Protection has conducted training on preventing child abuse and has collected names of 200 alleged abusers, according to its head, Dhira Govinda, a social worker for the state of Florida's children and family services agency, whom former students call an advocate.
Among the 30 people investigated, at least three suspects have been banned from Hare Krishna temples; another is in jail.
Meanwhile, as lawyers gather their own evidence, former students voice mixed feelings.
Arjuna has no interest in suing or leaving. Instead, he says, "We're going to raise our children in loving homes."
Krsna Avitara agrees: "I don't want any money from these people."
What he does want is assurance that the smallest child can learn about Krishna without being abused in his name.